Rewind back to 7th grade. Your history teacher is rambling on about Egyptians and the types of clothes they wore back in the time of Cleopatra. He moves on to a discussion of ancient Egyptians’ makeup habits when your friend just can’t take it anymore. His hand shoots up, and he blurts out the golden question: “Will this be on the test?”
Tests can be hard. And tests can be important. Put those two facts together and you get a bunch of students who constantly worry about what’s going to be on their tests. They know they need to get a good grade, get into college, get a good job. And thus, acing tests often eclipses learning for the sake of learning.
I’m not saying tests are unimportant. And while I do think our society relies too much on teaching for a test, that’s not the point I want to discuss today. Today’s post is about the students who choose to limit themselves to what they “need” to know. Students who don’t want to bother with knowing more information than they will be tested on. They cut off their teachers, do only what is absolutely required of them, and think solely of the test, because they just don’t see the point of learning to learn. If they won’t need to regurgitate it later on for some practical reason, they don’t care what clothing Egyptians wore, how the Greeks organized their society, or why the Eiffel Tower was built. They can’t be bothered to learn how physics works- they just want the formula that will help them spit out the right answer when someone asks them to do a problem.
I took a ton of literature courses in college, and the ones I enjoyed most went far beyond the books themselves. We delved into the history of each work’s setting, the culture, the behaviors. I have a vivid memory of a specific class where our professor was setting up the social, historical and philosophical context of a book we were about to read. Some fellow students appreciated it- and others thought it was a total waste of time, since we’d never be tested on it and would never “need to know it.” In reality, have I ever “needed” to know most of what that professor taught me? No. But learning more than I “needed to” has taught me to think beyond the obvious, to make connections between differences pieces of data, and to draw themes from vast amounts of information. Writing critical essays taught me how me come up with original ideas and find connections in places you’d never expect them.
I don’t have a solution for this sort of intellectual apathy, just sadness. I realize everyone has different subjects they love, and we can’t expect students to get excited about every single class they take. Still, I hope that every student finds something they care about enough to go beyond the minimums. Memorization may help you get an A, but there’s more to learning than getting good grades. As the world veers more and more toward “practicality,” I think students (and schools!) forget about the joy of learning something that is interesting, just because. Perhaps it won’t be on a test, or it won’t be part of your future job- but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s pointless.